EAST CHATHAM, N.Y.
A late night phone call from Marc Languy, leader of the World Wildlife Fund's Green Heart of Africa Initiative, gets us up early the next morning. We pick Marc up in front of his house on "whatever'' street. Although the main thoroughfares have names -- the U.S. Embassy is on Avenue de Rosa Parks -- some organized genius named the smaller streets and roads of the capital, Yaounde, with decimals! Hence you might live on the corner where Street 1.816 crosses Street 1.763. Directions are usually given using landmarks, such as "turn right at the Casino Supermarket'' or bear left at the taxi stand as if one could mosey into and then out of the milling yellow and green taxis surrounded by people wanting to go hither, thither and yon.
My brother, Matthew, has been living here for a year and a half and has no problem finding Marc's house. In a few minutes we are in the country, shops and stores are few and far between. Adobe brick houses reside next to stucco villas. Each village has a municipal worker in a long orange vest standing in the middle of the road collecting a small toll, "payage" of a dollar, one hopes used for the benefit of the actual village we pass through. Vendors offer us fried plantains, fresh pineapples and bananas, peanuts and occasionally bushmeat, more often than not a foot-and-a-half long cane rat, though we were also offered dikdik (small antelope) and monkey (here in the land of crossover viruses, the locals still like to feast on monkey).
We slow down as we cross the bridge over the brownish, slow-flowing Sanaga River. Marc directs us to a clear area near the savannah. We park, put on hats (the equatorial sun can be fierce), and amble along the rutted red road.
Marc is an excellent birder. Not only is he able to identify these strange and beautiful birds by call, but he also can find a secretive bird calling from the high grass or tangly shrubs. He scans the sky and finds African harrier hawks and lanner falcons. A flock of gray parrots flies over. He finds us whinchats, cisticolas, sunbirds. We get to compare the flashy paradise flycatcher with its long gracefully draped foot-long tail with the virtually tailless crombecs.
We reach the river where a few men casually work in, on and around boats. It takes a moment to realize what these men are doing -- harvesting sand for construction. One man in a boat floats to the middle of the river, hops out so he is standing waist high and with a shovel fills his boat with wet sand. He rows ashore and he, perhaps along with a companion, also using shovels, offloads the sand into drying piles. Some of the men are moving the piles from one place to another, to speed the drying process.
Marc greets these men and explains that we are here to "regarder les ouiseaux." We may find the sand harvest strange, but then they find looking for birds uproariously funny.
On the rock we see sleek white-throated blue swallows. On an islet in the river we observe piping hornbills, birds with incredible bills. Three different kingfishers flap on by: woodland, pied and gray-headed. The Senegal thick-knee is where Marc promised. By the end of the day we have racked up 40 new species! This is going to be a hard act to follow especially since Marc will be on his way to the Congo tomorrow.
The next day Danny and I, Matty and his son, Loïc, pack up the Suzuki and are off on our long birding journey out into the bush, over hills and mountains and then to the coast and back again to Yaounde. We travel along at a reasonable clip joining the parade of motos, yellow and green taxis and overfilled small busses. Children, (40 percent of the population of Cameroon is under the age of 15!) in colorful uniforms mosey along the roadsides, some swinging machetes, others balancing fruit, vegetables, boxes, or bottles on their heads, an art already perfected by even the smallest outfitted in a smock for his kindergarten class.
Matty has set up an impressive agenda. Lake Awing, a remote crater lake, is the first stop. In the forest we find, among other birds, two endemics: the white-tailed warbler and the African hill babbler.
In Bafut, we decide to visit the SaBoGa (Savanna Botanical Gardens) environmental center, a site that is well marked on the main road with large signs in both directions. What an extraordinary place! Professor Ngwa Che Francis created an area to teach about "environmental protection and conservation of nature." We park right near Barack Obama Lane, this not too far from Nelson Mandela Road. Not only are native plants, flowers and herbs nurtured, but many poignant exhibits are spread throughout the 17 hectare park. In one area, an outline of Africa is embedded in the grass with Cameroon featured. If one steps back, the whole world is depicted!
Only a few of the plants are labeled, but what a great birding spot! Among others, we are dazzled by blue flycatchers, purple glossy starlings, tree pipits, and red-cheeked cordon bleus. We find three endemics here: The mountain sooty boubou, the pink-footed puffback and Ursula's sunbird.
Since birding with Marc, we discover we can already recognize a number of common species by sight and sound and have add 11 new birds, but even more exciting is the road trip through this strange and beautiful country.
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle